Two new studies offer insights on how mindfulness techniques may impact parenting.
Mindfulness starts with awareness. With the following questions having no correct answers, reflect on them as you read this article. By being mindful of our behaviors, we can be less reactive and more resourceful in our choices.
|Never True||Rarely True||Sometimes True||Often True||Always True|
|I find myself listening to my child with one ear because I am busy doing or thinking about something else at the same time.|
|When I’m upset with my child, I notice how I am feeling before I take action.|
|I notice how changes in my child’s mood affect my mood.|
|I listen carefully to my child’s ideas, even when I disagree with them.|
|I often react too quickly to what my child says or does.|
|I am aware of how my moods affect the way I treat my child.|
|Even when it makes me uncomfortable, I allow my child to express their feelings.|
|When I am upset with my child, I calmly tell them how I am feeling.|
|I rush through activities with my child without being really attentive to them.|
|I have difficulty accepting my child’s growing independence.|
While mindfulness is known to improve our mental well-being and happiness, some critics have argued that specialists focus far too heavily on self-improvement and neglect other key areas. However, two new studies back research claiming that mindfulness teachings can positively impact the lives of those around us, especially our children.
Researchers from the University of Vermont took a pool of more than 600 parents, all with children between the ages of 3 and 17, to ask them questions about mindfulness. The parents were asked to give feedback in three key areas:
- Trait Mindfulness — How mindful a person is in their day-to-day interactions with others
- Parental Mindfulness — How mindful they are with their children
- Positive vs. Negative — How they balance their parenting, e.g. unconditional love vs. punishment
Not only this but the parents were also asked about how their children coped with these areas of mindfulness. For example, did certain things make them anxious? Did they respond well to other things? Did they act out for any reason?
The study results showed that parents who engaged in parental mindfulness also tended to show more positive than negative behavior toward their children. This also led to a similar trend within the children, with positive action being met with positive behavior.
Justin Parent, the lead author of the study, said, “To bring mindful attention and awareness into your interactions with your child really seems to set the stage for you to be a good parent.”
The study also found that parents did not experience improved outcomes for their children if they had higher trait mindfulness. This implied that mindfulness and parental mindfulness are very different things. Justin Parent concluded that working on mindfulness may reduce stress but does not automatically mean that the skills can be applied under pressure.
He noted, “When you have developed ingrained patterns of behavior with your family, they can be tough to change.”
Justin Parent said that there are three key factors behind parental mindfulness:
- Being aware of your own feelings when conflicting with the child
- Pausing before acting on anger
- Listening to the view of your child even if you disagree
He argues that these three skills allow the parent to maintain a good relationship with their child while simultaneously being a positive role model in pressure situations.
What Mindful Parenting Looks Like…
George Mason University researchers Caitlin Turpyn and Tara Chaplin set out to directly observe the relationships between parents and children. The children were aged between 12 and 14 for this particular study. The parents were asked to talk to their children about conflict within their relationship.
The resulting conversations were recorded and studied to look at positive/negative parental emotions and how they affected their children. The results were compared to reported data on sexual behavior and drug use in children.
Turpyn and Chaplin concluded that mindful parents showed fewer cases of negative emotion, as well as increased cases of shared positive emotion with their children. Sharing positivity also had correlations with decreased drug use — although the same cannot be said for sexual behavior.
Chaplin stated that “mindful parenting matters, even when you are parenting a teen and it matters for risk behaviors.”
It’s Not About Positive Thinking
Studies have found that positive/negative emotional expressions do not tend to affect sexual behavior or drug use in childhood. However, negativity has previously been linked to trends in general risk-taking. Chaplin argues that it may be more important for parents to be on the same emotional wavelength as their children, rather than concentrating on positive vs. negative. Parental mindfulness can keep parents connected to their goals.
Chaplin noted, “Mindful parenting may be more about attunement or emotional congruency in the interaction — not just parents smiling a lot. Often parents want to do the right thing when parenting — they want to be warm, provide structure, and have rules and consequences. Those are all good things, but sometimes they get tripped up at the moment. When your teenager angrily slams the door in your face, that’s where mindful parenting comes in.”
The two studies together imply that mindful parenting without the use of punishment or shouting could result in fewer negative effects such as drug use, anxiety, depression, and acting out.
While both of these studies are considered to be preliminary and do not offer hard proof, there is certainly a lot to take away from them. Having said this, there may be differing explanations behind their respective results. For example, mindfulness may instead have a positive impact on relationships between partners, which in turn has a knock-on positive effect on the child. It could also be argued that negative behavior in children has a negative impact on parental mindfulness, rather than the other way around.
To be fair, both research teams acknowledge these facts, pointing out the need for more studies.
Chaplin noted, “I do not know that we know enough yet. But, if we show that our program increases parent mindfulness and that this decreases their teen’s risk behaviors, we’d be more confident that it’s the parenting driving this. Then it could be something all parents learn to do.”
Anthony Cupo is a Trained Mindfulness Facilitator (TMF) from the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He is a co-owner of Stepping Forward Counseling Center, LLC and has been meditating for over 30 years. Our article is also published in ParentingOC’s Magazine!